John Garver, a leading American expert on Sino-Indian relations, has likened Beijing’s strategy towards India to the traditional Chinese way of cooking a frog. Plonk the frog in a vessel and turn up the heat slowly. If the water was hot to begin with or the temperature were to rise much too quickly, the frog would simply jump out and escape.But if the heat is turned up gradually, the frog luxuriates in the warming water, unmindful of the fate awaiting it until it is too late for it to do anything.
Having contained India strategically to the subcontinent by nuclear arming Pakistan and, with the urgings of military assistance and economic aid, encouraged its landward neighbours (Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal) to stand up to India, Beijing is even tempting Bhutan to look east and away from New Delhi for its needs. Such developments are forcing the Indian government to be preoccupied with its immediate periphery
rather than to focus on strategic issues.
With the idea of further confining the frog to the vessel, Beijing has worked hard to alienate the adjoining maritime states from India as well, turning the once welcoming waters of the Indian Ocean into a cauldron that, should New Delhi continue with its wayward policies, may soon boil over. Here again the means used are tried and tested — a spate of high-value infrastructure projects are but a thinly veiled wedge to mine the mother lode of Sri Lankan and Maldivan resentment against “big brother” India.
The modern container port complex in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, a container port and another airport upcoming in the Maldives, and armaments by the shipload to Bangladesh are real gains for these countries and could be the precursor of more such projects to draw these island and littoral states into the Chinese security orbit as a means of neutralizing India’s dominant position astride the busiest, most strategic of oceanic highways.
Combined with Beijing consolidating its political hold on Nepal through the Maoist cadres and making deep inroads into Burma by constructing the north-south road and rail transportation and energy grids, it is also tying up Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia in oil and gas pipeline network to deliver energy resources to China’s western provinces of Xinjiang and Chinese-occupied Tibet (CoT). Beijing’s plan is grand and audacious both in its conception and implementation. The increasingly marginalised New Delhi, meanwhile, morosely chews the cud, limiting India’s options at every turn, such as by not getting in on the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Colombo, Male, Kathmandu and Yangbon, meanwhile, play up the virtues of a “friendly” China, and preen themselves, being finally in a position to command New Delhi’s attention and respect.
The Chinese strategy of alienating the neighbours from India and consolidating its own presence in the region is deftly prosecuted with soft words issuing in tandem with hard, well-thought-out actions, with the Indian government, predisposed to doing nothing, lulled into inaction. Despite all the evidence of the warming water, the Indian frog seems determined to not feel the heat.
National security adviser Shivshankar Menon, apparently oblivious to the developments adversely affecting India’s vital national interests in the Indian Ocean Region, declared the other day that “maritime rivalry with China is not inevitable.” Such pronouncements do nothing, of course, to prevent New Delhi appearing foolish, confirming the Chinese estimation of this country as a“pushover state”.
The Chinese have concluded that it pays to talk peace and trade, but with an overlay of the hardline. Thus, even as the visiting People’s Liberation Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo, signed an agreement renewing joint military exercises and service-to-service exchanges, Chinese President Xi Jinping made clear that a resolution of the India-China border dispute is not on the cards because it “won’t be easy”.
This raises the question whether New Delhi’s eagerness to resolve the dispute isn’t misplaced, and whether it would not be more prudent to formally shelve the special track dialogue rather than try and revive it as Mr Menon seems intent on doing during his planned Beijing trip in the second week of April. With the Chinese voicing the futility of such dialogue, his insistence on it reveals desperation— from the Chinese perspective, it is a sign of weakness.
Mr Xi met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the Brics Summit in Durban to discuss terrorism emanating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. It is an issue that is to be followed up with official talks in Beijing. The Chinese, it is obvious, will use the terrorism issue to zero in on Tibetan unrest and the alleged Indian hand stoking it. The Indian representatives would do well to remind the Chinese that India accepted China’s suzeraingty on the premise of a genuinely “autonomous” Tibet, which cannot be taken to mean Indian quiescence in the face of sustained state violence against the Tibetan people, and that it is time Beijing respected the inherent rights of Tibetans in their own homeland. This will hint at the hard options open to India of aiding the Tibetan freedom movement in the future.
Such plain talking should be followed up by arming, on a priority basis, Vietnam with nuclear missiles and distributing the supersonic Brahmos cruise missile to any Southeast Asian country that wants it. Those who suggest that New Delhi should try and co-manage Asia with a fast-ascending China should consider where that would get India, already seen to be lacking in the essentials that constitute great power. It is a reputation that will repel countries from rallying to the Indian standard and seeking security in a milieu roiled by Chinese aggressiveness. New Delhi being over-mindful of Beijing’s concerns has only worsened India’s relative position.
It is time India joined Japan, Asean and Taiwan to impose on Beijing the costs of living dangerously. The process of reversing the heat to cook the Chinese frog in the South China Sea waters is long overdue.
[Published March 29, 2013 in the ‘Ásian Agé’ at http://aggwww.asianage.com/columnists/frog-hot-water-759, and the ‘Deccan Chronicle’ at http://www.deccanchronicle.com/130328/commentary-columnists/commentary/frog-hot-water